The 5 Best Workouts I Did in 2020

From foundation training on Hawaii's North Shore to a mad-dash 10K through Tony Soprano's New Jersey

December 23, 2020 7:00 am
best workouts of the year
Grant Faint/Getty

I learned something in those early days of the COVID era: Whenever I exercised, I gave myself a chance. From one point of view, it’s all biochemical. I know that. Exercise circulates blood to bodily tissue; it builds muscle; it lowers your risk of disease; it releases happy hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine; it helps you focus, hone skills, trust yourself, and sleep better.

But exercise was more than its best benefits for me this year. It became a constant, a necessity, a friend. On days when I didn’t find time for a run, a lift, or even some completely improvised 15-minute mat workout, I still had to show up to work, read headlines, and hold down relationships with people I loved, at a time that had abandoned all reason. I might as well sweat for a bit and make myself feel better during it all, I reasoned.

The fitness community was decimated this year. Thousands of gyms closed, tens of thousands of trainers had to reinvent themselves over night, and the rest of us started looking around our homes, forced to imagine the least offensive corner to use for staying in shape. Still, people got creative. We bought bikes, found YouTube yogis and turned milk cartons into dumbbells.

We’re not out of the woods yet. But we’re smarter — and in some ways, maybe fitter — than we were when this year started. Here at the end of 2020, I’m taking some time to reflect on my five favorite workouts of the year. Some occurred before the pandemic; consider them relics of a bygone time, when terms like “group fitness” and “wellness travel” were regularly tossed around in industry trend pieces. Others came later, during the reinvention period, and kept me inspired and engaged when neither seemed possible.

All put me through the ringer, in the best way. Go ahead and steal anything you read here. That’s what good fitness is all about, especially in this age. From a 90-degree yoga session to a surf clinic to a Hemsworth-approved barbell workout, here are my picks.

y7 yoga class
Y7 Studio

Y7 Studio Yoga Session

I was here for only an hour, and it was all the way back in January, which now feels like a decade ago. But I remember sweating out an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Y7 is a candlelit yoga studio, heated by infrared technology to a temperature somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees. It bumps early 2000s hip hop, and the instructors ask how your week’s been going right before they absolutely destroy you. This workout makes the list not just for its effective, challenging vinyasa flow (which I felt in my thighs for three days after), but because it’s representative of the ClassPass-fueled, group fitness craze that had taken over the industry before the arrival of the pandemic. It was a different world — one that I dearly miss — which could take years to fully return.

North Shore Surf Clinic

In February I went to Hawaii with Red Bull to cover the surf championships at Banzai Pipeline, on Oahu’s North Shore. I met Kahea Hart while out there, a former professional surfer who now trains young surfers at North Shore Surf Clinic. Hart’s brought tenets of recovery fitness, foundation training and the Wim Hof method to the beach. Think: breathing, stretching and low-impact exercises geared toward flexibility, core strength and balance, all of which help surfers prevent injury and handle the sport’s most menacing meccas. (Hart tore his ACL surfing Pipeline’s right-peeling Backdoor.) This workout included seven minutes of intense nasal breathing, a series of lunges and hip movements, jiu–jitsu-style flows on the sand, and one final, damning circuit: chuck a medicine ball at the sand, 10 times in a row, jump in the ocean to swim 25 meters, run back, perform it all again. Three times.

virtual running race
Trials of Miles

Survival of the Fastest 10K

Over the summer, Brooklyn-based running collective Trials of Miles hosted a March Madness for the Greater New York running community, with new distances on tap each week. The entire affair was unseeded. You drew who you drew the first round, and that was your road to the final. There were only two rules: A) no treadmills, and B) send in the GPS map of your race by Sunday afternoon. That meant people could dive-bomb the mightiest hill in their county, and lodge multiple attempts at a distance, in the name of getting an optimal time — which is exactly what I did. In the second round, the 10K, I ran a 35:37, then a 35:12, within days of each other, in an ill-fated, but fun-as-hell attempt to beat my competitor, who’d run a disgustingly quick 33:01. It’s odd to think about a race as a “workout”; starting at the top of a hill on Tony Soprano cul-de-sac in Northern New Jersey to race 6.2 miles against a man I’d never met had little to do with calorie-burning and everything to do with the distractive, delusional, romantic nature of the sport of running. That said, I can’t remember pushing myself to “that place” any other time this year. I was a shell of a human being at the end of that week, in the best way.

Hemsworth Barbell Workout

Chris Hemsworth’s fitness app Centr is flush with content from his inner circle of trainers and wellness friends — ex-Navy SEALS, yogis and Michelin chefs included. But I’m always on the lookout for one of Hemsworth’s bonus workouts, usually a quick-bite training session he’s perfected from spending months out of the year on press tours. They’re especially relevant in the COVID era, as he tends to perform them in cramped hotel gyms with whatever workout equipment he has at his disposal. “Don’t Drop the Bar” was my favorite from this year. It’s a barbell endurance workout you can perform with either an EZ bar or a straight bar, and light weight. Seriously, like 2.5s on each side. You perform seven moves (close grip vertical row, lunges left + right, overhead press, close grip tricep extension, bent-over row, bicep curl, deadlift) in succession, 10 reps for each, five times through. The only rule? Don’t drop the freakin’ bar. I have never sweat more from a weightlifting workout.

second u training
Second U

Second U Zoom Training

A month ago I had a half-hour-long Zoom workout with A Second U Foundation. Over the past three years, the organization has turned nearly 200 former inmates into personal trainers, and not a single graduate has reoffended. I was paired with Tommy Morris, who’d served 27 years behind bars. Morris’s training philosophy borrows from strength training, functional fitness and yoga. He had me performing push-ups into downward-facing dog, then lunges with hip twists, then bicycle crunches. At one point he asked me to fetch a dish towel from my kitchen. He had me lie prone on the floor, my arms stretched out in front of me like superman, holding the towel taut. I brought the towel down towards my head for slow, deliberate reps. (DIY lat-pulldowns.) Morris’s patience and knowledge were elite; there was no rush to finish the movements, only guidance toward the right way to do them. My best workout of 2020, then, was had in a cluttered apartment, over Zoom, as I howled from a carpet. Seems about right.

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